Research Update: More Than a Feeling: How and Why Emotional Connections with Wildlife Contributes to Effectively Managing Parks and Open Space

By Hicks, Jonathan | Parks & Recreation, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Research Update: More Than a Feeling: How and Why Emotional Connections with Wildlife Contributes to Effectively Managing Parks and Open Space


Hicks, Jonathan, Parks & Recreation


Not every park agency actively considers wildlife in its mission statements or management practices (Hicks 2010). Still, wildlife is finding ways to survive in places it never could before, and for perhaps the first time, some people are beginning to welcome the animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Americans spend $3 billion annually on bird seed, and another $800 million on bird feeders, baths and houses (USFWS 2007).

Meanwhile, a trip to the local feed store reveals squirrel feeders, bat houses and tools to create butterfly gardens. People are buying salt licks for deer and trail cameras to snap photos of backyard raccoons. Researchers have documented this phenomenon across the country, repeatedly finding that, particularly in urban areas, more and more people prefer non-consumptive to consumptive wildlife recreation. Since the 1970s, hunting participation has declined while wildlife viewing has increased (Whitehead and Aiken 2000; USFWS 2007). In other words, people are becoming less likely to shoot animals with a gun and more likely to shoot them with a camera.

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Sometimes lost in the shuffle, however, is that even though a majority of people appreciate wildlife, they are often very specific about where they want to see wildlife. Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge for managers: How do we balance the numerous feelings and attitudes that many people express? For the most part, it is not wildlife to which people are opposed, it is the situations that arise from the presence of wildlife. For instance, most people genuinely enjoy seeing deer at their local forest preserve. However, seeing one through your car's windshield is far less appealing. Having Canada geese in the river may be quite enjoyable, but having them on your golf course is more problematic.

It is these situational inconsistencies that make dealing with people and wildlife so complex and oftentimes emotional. On one side of your home, you may have a neighbor who wants to shoot deer that eat their vegetable gardens, while your neighbor across the street feeds and tries to pet the same deer. Both are upstanding citizens who pay taxes and value local parks, yet their behaviors and emotional responses are different. Many communities, including some in suburban Chicago, have dealt with these conflicting emotions with regard to coyotes. Some members of the public were concerned for the safety of their pets and young children. However, when officials decided to trap and kill several coyotes, many people were upset.

In reality, the coyotes were probably not a threat. Reports of coyote attacks on humans are rare; coyotes are not pack hunters like wolves, and pets kept indoors, inside fences or on leashes are generally not at risk. Examinations of trapped coyotes have revealed that their stomachs were not filled with human children or pets--they were almost entirely filled with carelessly disposed human food and pet food residents left outside (Gese et al. 2012). In other words, many of the same people who do not want coyotes around are unknowingly contributing to their presence.

Unfortunately, "reality" and "facts" are rarely as important to the public as their feelings. Just because feelings are not objective does not mean they should be ignored. Emotions are important because they influence perceptions. "Researchers who examine environmental decisionmaking have consistently demonstrated that emotions not only play a role in environmental decisions, but also serve as a motivational and guiding principle of environmental perception and actions" (Vining and Merrick 2012:48). This can result from numerous factors like reading Little Red Riding Hood as a child and having animals as pets. Unfortunately, regardless of how people feel, managers often get caught in the middle, and making everyone happy can seem like an impossible task. However, there are many ways to handle these wildlife situations.

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Research Update: More Than a Feeling: How and Why Emotional Connections with Wildlife Contributes to Effectively Managing Parks and Open Space
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